I don’t bring politics into this column as a rule.  One, we have enough of that sort of thing relentlessly bombarding us without my two cents on the subject. Two, as a writer dedicated to broccoli and bergenia, I am hardly qualified to tell others what to do at the ballot box. Nor will I try, for the contentious gubernatorial race we have underway in Virginia this week will be over by the time you read these words.

However, I am choosing to break this rule (just once in almost a decade of writing this column) after witnessing an election season tainted by the basest of offensive stereotyping.  The outcry has been marginalized and no doubt worse is in the pipeline for elections to come, but in the interests of challenging such behavior, this gardener at least is encouraged to trade treatises on fall foliage for a moment of political punditry.

The danger of stereotyping

Let me begin with a bit of stereotype shattering – however anecdotal.

My parents are two of the greenest people I have ever known. All my life they have composted their kitchen scraps, dried clothes on a line, recycled their recyclables, consolidated grocery trips to save gas, shopped thrift stores first, cooked real food with real ingredients from a real garden, and made do with what they had before they thought about buying new.

They’re Californians, and live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the home where I grew up. By utilizing practices such as the reuse of graywater, the installation of drip irrigation, the maintenance of firebreaks and the clearing of invasive weeds, they have acted as stewards of that land since the day they moved in.  There, where summer temperatures regularly top 100 degrees, they use their HVAC system so parsimoniously that it resembles the ’69 Mustang that sits in your great-aunt’s garage with twenty thousand miles on the clock.

You know where this is going.

My parents also happen to be politically and socially conservative, and would chafe if I told them their actions classify them as bona fide environmentalists. So I don’t.

Meanwhile, I know others that drive a road-commanding SUV, live in a house twice the size with half the kids, find composting a bit ‘icky,’ and bought a house in a neighborhood that outlaws clothes lines and specifies the color their rain barrels have to be. They buy new, buy new again and have massive yard sales that would confuse three quarters of the world’s population. In a consumerist world, they are consummate consumers.  Blue Apron makes sense.

This is all well and good – and apparently The American Way – but they also consider themselves to be socially and politically liberal and very concerned about the environment. Any and all of that consumer packaging is guiltlessly sorted, flat packed and inserted into a convenient blue bin on a Wednesday night.

Stereotypes have always been useful to politicians seeking power, but they are rarely accurate.

Is the concept of having urban chickens a red/blue thing? Not in my mind, but it certainly was in the minds of others when I challenged the ordinance. An eye-opener for this gardener who just wanted eggs for the table and compost for the beds.

Now before I am accused of intolerable bias (and fondness for my granola-munching parents), let me just add this: There are plenty of citizens on the left living virtuously by their creed (Ed Begley, Jr. springs happily to mind) and just as many citizens on the right who absolutely aren’t (Rep. Tim Murphy springs far less happily). There are environmentalists who have closet NRA memberships and NRA members who quietly work to save our wildernesses.  The point is, we rarely fit in the box that others make for us.

The inconvenience of individuality

The example of my parents simply illustrates this concept. If we recognize the premise of human individuality, how on earth can we believe that the world is easily divisible into two rigidly defined groups, and train ourselves to hate the ‘other’ when we know that we ourselves don’t quite fit in the box made for us?

Yet still we allow ourselves to demonize.

Furthermore, we allow ourselves to demonize not just those that might live several states or time zones away, and whose anonymity makes such processes easier, but those with whom we interact every day, that we have called friends – that we trust on an instinctive level.

We assign those ‘others’ motives and monikers and thus feel justified in deeming them monstrous, even if our personal experience suggests otherwise. Nor do we make the effort to calm our emotional reactions and sit in deep conversation with those whom we have condemned.  If we do sit down in conversation it is to be won at all costs; opponents vanquished; preferably shamed and/or ridiculed.

We are not listening to one another.

How many times have I been at a party, or at a conference, or in a crowd of people where someone (feeling safe within the assumed political stereotypes that particular crowd has been granted) has loudly and adamantly pronounced their views on a controversial subject with absolutely no desire to discuss them. Others, feeling ever-safer, provide an echo chamber, oblivious to the division those words may have created between them and the friend and colleague standing inches away – one who may then quietly and decisively stop working towards a shared goal, weary of being the butt of a joke.

The point is, we rarely fit in the box that others make for us.

I have witnessed this on both sides of the political divide – and witnessed the resulting damage to friendships and working relationships, all done for a cheap laugh or to be seen as a fearless party advocate.  My garden itself may be free of such contention, but I can assure you, the garden industry is not.

The failings of emotion-based argument

Have we lost the ability to sincerely engage in truth-seeking argument?  Do we even care to try? After all, demons and monsters are below contempt and incapable of goodness – why would one waste the time? In November’s issue of GreenProfit (an excellent industry publication by Ball Publishing), Bill McCurry cleverly muses on the slings and arrows we chuck at each other in order to avoid such discussions.  “Come let us reason together,” he pleads, having been earlier rewarded for such heretical thoughts with the usual mix of ad hominem.

This isn’t the sign of a rational, well-informed, thinking citizenry.  It is a symptom of increasing mob mentality.  And as Robespierre might have written in the fall of 1794 – had he not been arrested and executed without trial in July by the very Terror he orchestrated – mob-thought can be turned on a dime (or rather, sur un décime), rooted as it is in the volatility of emotion-based argument and accusation.

We must force ourselves to take the harder road – limiting our emotional reactions in favor of critical analysis and persuasion, and remembering that those ‘others’ are human beings with all the hopes, dreams and aspirations that we hold dear to our own hearts. We must remember that we may stand in mixed company – that those demons we have conjured bear no resemblance to the friend, relative or neighbor who is living and working by our side.

A better way forward

Simply put, we must strive for more and better discourse in our own lives. Thus when skillful manipulators goad, we will instinctively rise above such trickery – preferring to seek truth through research, conversation, experience and the total rejection of convenient stereotypes. We may be inherently frail, but we are also inherently good – evil is thankfully an aberration.

Next week, back to broccoli.  Political punditry is an aberration here too.